House Panel OKs School Voucher Bill
09:41 PM CDT on Thursday, May 5, 2005
By TERRENCE STUTZ / The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN – Fiercely debated legislation that would allow low-income and at-risk students in Dallas and other urban school districts to transfer to private schools at state expense was approved Thursday by the House Public Education Committee.
The private school voucher bill, passed at a hastily called meeting of the committee, would enable thousands of students in Dallas, Fort Worth and at least five other urban districts to attend private schools as long as those schools satisfy certain requirements, such as annual testing of students.
Committee members approved the measure on a 6-3 vote, with all three Democrats on the panel voting no.
The measure, which faces an uphill battle for passage, now goes to the full House. The Senate has not considered private school vouchers this session.
Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, author of the bill, said that students in greatest need are poor, at risk of dropping out, in special education or victims of school violence.
Further she said, her legislation limits the number of students who would be eligible for vouchers to 5 percent of each district's enrollment through 2008. That figure represents about 30,000 students statewide.
Opponents – including virtually every public-education group in the state – assert that the voucher scheme would deal a huge blow to public schools, depriving them of millions of dollars at a time when many districts are cutting programs and employees to make ends meet.
A Legislative Budget Board fiscal note on the bill indicated that if 15,000 students take advantage of the voucher option, the seven school districts would lose nearly $70 million in funding.
"Legislators need to do the math," said Carolyn Boyle, a spokeswoman for the Coalition for Public Schools, which represents most school districts and education groups in the state. "We can't afford to take away money from public schools to subsidize private schools in Texas."
Another group, Texas Freedom Network, called the legislation a "payback" to wealthy campaign contributors who want to see tax dollars used to fund private schools.
Those groups warned that tax funding for private schools could eventually reach $600 million a year under the bill.
Voucher supporters have been trying for several years to pass legislation setting up a pilot program in Texas, but they have been unsuccessful – even though there were backed by former Gov. George Bush, Gov. Rick Perry and legislative leaders.
Public opinion polls have generally indicated that most Texans are opposed to use of their tax dollars for private school education.
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